Do I Eat Less Or Exercise More For Fat Loss?

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Do you reach your fat loss goals by eating less or should you stick with your current diet and increase energy expenditure by exercising more? Let's go over each strategy and see what works best. 

Eating Less While Paying Less Attention to Exercise

Weight loss occurs when you consistently consume less calories than you burn; I'm sure everyone is aware of that by now. By tracking your calories and overhauling your diet with healthy whole foods, plenty of protein, fibre and vitamins, you will definitely lose weight. Some people are under the misconception that decreasing calories means eating less food; these are the same people that have problems managing their hunger levels - possible causing them to overeat or not adhere to their diet properly. The best way to control hunger levels while staying in a calorie deficit is to consume high volume foods, increase their protein intake and increase their meal frequency.

Examples of high volume foods include big salads, or substituting vegetables for your rice or pasta dish. Increasing protein intake can help with satiety and is achieved by consuming lean protein sources like lean beef, some seafoods, and vegetarian sources like tofu. A higher meal frequency, while shown not to have any beneficial effects on weight loss compared to a calorie-equated low meal frequency diet, can help people adhere to their diets more effectively and decrease the likelihood of overeating. Small to moderate size meals throughout the day can be better for diet adherence than eating 2-3 big meals a day.

What's wrong with this approach?

While you are certainly going to experience some weight and fat loss by eating less calories and improving your diet, your fat loss will plateau without paying extra attention to exercise. In order to consistently lose fat, your calories will have to decrease more and more. This is not only difficult in terms of managing hunger levels, but can be out right unhealthy - I've heard stories of females eating 1000 calorie diets attempting to lose weight. This is NOT okay and people will run the risk of nutrient deficiencies and low energy levels. 


Exercise will do wonders for your body. Increased energy/calorie expenditure, improved nutrient partitioning (positively change the way your body deals with the nutrients and calories coming into your body), improved muscular and cardiovascular health, alleviate pain and prevent injuries. I recommend a combination of resistance training and cardio exercises for everyone, the most important thing is to make exercise sustainable and enjoyable. 

My general recommendations for resistance exercise (lifting) would be a minimum 2 times a week. Cardio training can be done everyday (low intensity) or 2-3 times a week if performing challenging interval training. Doing that alone will increase your weekly calorie expenditure... as long as you're consistent!

What's wrong with this approach?

If you're a beginner trainee and you currently eat diet high in calories, its unlikely you'll be able to work off a bad diet. A beginner simply doesn't have the work or recovery capacity to exercise enough to out work a bad diet. Increasing muscle mass improves your fat and calorie burning abilities. However, new trainees do not experience significant muscle hypertrophy until 5-8 weeks into a consistent weight training program.

What should you do then? The answer lies in between the 2 strategies.

the perfect fitness and diet lifestyle

The perfect recipe for fat loss utilizes both strategies mentioned above. You should know now that fat loss can be achieved through either #1: increasing calorie expenditure, or #2: decreasing calorie consumption. Trying to take extreme measures on any 1 method will often cause you to fall short of your goals. It's very difficult to adhere to a hard exercise program when you're new to resistance or cardio training, and it's very hard to make your diet sustainable if it includes very low calories or foods you don't like eating.

The solution

Instead of taking extreme measures, take small steps to improve your exercise habits, diet and learn the concept of NEAT (Non-exercise activity thermogenesis). 

NEAT is one of the most overlooked aspects of calorie expenditure and fat loss. NEAT represents all the physical activity throughout your day that isn't considered exercise. How much you walk a day, how many chores you do, how active your job is, how long you spend your day sitting and being sedentary, all of these are included in your NEAT.

"I eat pretty well, I exercise 3 times a week, how come I'm still not reaching my fat loss goals?" - Bob

Well I'm sorry to hear that Bob, but it might be because you sit on your ass all day when you're not exercising. Bob is most likely not training hard enough for exercise to have any significant effects on his calorie expenditure. Paired with that fact that he remains sedentary when not at the gym, his metabolism remains relatively slow.

This is an example of a breakdown of the daily calorie expenditure of a person that exercises moderately but stays relatively active in their daily life.

  • Basal Metabolic Rate represents the calories burned just by staying alive (based on bodyweight, height, muscle mass, anthropometric features)
  • NEAT represents the amount of activity level in a day not related to dedicated exercise
  • Exercise represents a dedicated time to which you hit the gym/go for a run/follow your training program
  • TE of Food represents the thermic effect of food - the amount of energy spent digesting the food you consume

As a beginner, there is only so much exercise you can do before it becomes unsustainable or you can recover from without being injured or burnt out. Seeing how the thermic effect of food plays a very small part in your metabolism and basal metabolic rate is dependent on genetic and body measurement factors, increasing NEAT would be the next best option.

As an intermediate/advanced trainee, your work capacity develops and the calories that can be burned through exercise increases. NEAT eventually turns into moderate-high intensity exercise. Many of these trainees can "outwork a bad diet", however, it still takes discipline and proper training/dieting strategies to become the leanest, strongest and fittest version of yourself.

There are plenty of ways to increase your NEAT, and consequently, energy expenditure throughout the day. Here are a few:

  • Every hour or so of sitting, balance that out with 5-10 minutes of stretching and moving around
  • Create a daily step count goal and hit it every day
  • Walk to the grocery store instead of driving there 
  • Go on the stationary bike or treadmill while watching Netflix or studying for your upcoming exam
  • Go for walk when listening to music or audiobooks
  • Dance in the shower (careful there)

Achieving your fat loss goals and improving your fitness lifestyle does not occur while taking extreme measures, rather, working on all parts of the equation - diet, exercise, NEAT and building sustainable habits. 

Exercise more, improve your diet, move more.

Thanks for reading! Here a few articles to get you started with your fitness and diet goals:

What Type Of Dieter Are You?

Surprising Reasons You're Not Reaching Your Fitness Goals (Habit Building Article)

How Much Protein Do You Really Need?

How To Pack On Muscle - Diet Tips For The Hardgainer

Need extra help? Want to jump start your training or diet? Feel free to contact me for a free consultation!